Papua New Guinea Post 3: Touring Caves and Volcanoes

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Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. She was invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in Papua New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining people. Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua New Guinea, near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

Yesterday I went on a tour of East New Britain area, or that
part which is readily accessible and thus included in such a tour. Parts like
the Baining Mountains are generally not considered in this category because
they are too hard to get to. We started out from Kokopo, which is now the
Provincial Capital of East New Britain. It is about thirty kilometers from the
old Capital of Rabaul. Along the road towards Rabaul, we stopped at several
caves. These caves are dug into the pumice cliffs along the steep escarpment
which forms the ancient caldera of the volcano, which formed Rabaul

Rabaul Harbor was a very important naval base and armed
forces headquarters for the Japanese Army during World War II. There are still
many remnants of their occupation all around the region.

The cliffs below were dug into the hillside by the Japanese
armed forces during World War II. They dug these tunnels in order to pull some
of their naval ships out of the harbor when Allied planes were sighted. The
ships, mostly barges and tenders, were lifted out of the water by cranes and
loaded onto railway track that led into the cave. The barges were thus dragged
into the tunnels to avoid being seen and bombed. The biggest remaining tunnel,
cutting deep into the mountain, can hold seven barges. 


Photo by
Jane Fajans.

We also drove by a small volcano called Vulcan, which locals
watched emerge from the bay in 1937. Back then, as the Tavurvur volcano erupted,
a cone of earth and magma began rising from the water, forming Vulcan. The two
volcanoes remained active; they erupted again in 1994. Tavurvur also erupted in


 Vulcan Volcano seen from Kokopo Road.  Photo by Jane Fajans.

We drove into the town of Rabaul, which is quite abandoned
now. The part of the town farthest from the volcano looks relatively normal. However, as you get closer to the volcano,
the town begins to look more abandoned and bedraggled. Instead of neatly
delineated streets with houses set in rows along them, the streets look like
vehicle tracks with houses scattered around, but not filling the space.


Rabaul and Harbor from overlook point.  Photo by Jane Fajans.

As one drives closer towards the volcano, the scene begins
to look more and more like a post-apocalyptic world with dust blowing across a
grey landscape, and just a few tree trunks standing amid the ash. The volcano
itself is totally bare. As one walks across this landscape, one realizes that
the surface of the slope is not hardened rock, but relatively soft pumice or

volcanic ash.jpg

Ash at the bottom of Tavurvur Volcano.  Photo by Jane Fajans.

Walking up a slope or along a ridge, the surface crumbles
and slides. It is very hard to walk on, in part because of the numerous gullies
and ravines. We had to cross a large ash field before we even reached the
volcano. Trying to cross one of the ravines, the rock I placed my foot on
across the gap gave way and I twisted my ankle. It didn’t feel too painful at
the time, but began to hurt more when I was about half-way up the volcanic
cone. I decided not to continue to the top. I felt bad, but my companions did
reach the top, and took these photos.


Looking into the volcano’s crater.  Photo by Steve Bachfur.


Steve on the rim of the crater.  Photo by Bill Rendell.

I’m glad that no one got too close to the edge of the

Just sitting on the side of the crater, I could feel the
heat coming through the rock. I sat on a large rock, which was one of many
rocks that were thrown out of the volcano while it was erupting. People who
witnessed this described it as “raining rocks.”

When we got down from the volcano we were covered with black
dust, and my hair was standing straight up thanks to a combination of the wind
and the ash. We then went to lunch at the Rabaul Hotel–but we washed off under
their hose before we went into the dining room. I felt like I had shed an outer
casing. I think the ash layer helped insulate me from the sun, so I didn’t get
too sunburned.

After lunch we had one last stop at a site called Submarine
Bay. Here, the shore drops very precipitously into the deep ocean. Because of
this sudden drop, submarines used to be able to come up within a few yards of
the shore. There, they could re-provision and hide in the relatively sheltered
cove. On the cliff above this bay, the Japanese built a big canon to shoot any
enemy ships that threatened their submarines. The man who now owns this land
(it is his traditional land but was taken by the Japanese when they invaded New
Guinea) was a boy of about 8-10 when the Japanese were here. He looks after
this site now.


Japanese canon overlooking the submarine harbor.  Photo by Steve Bachfur.

 –Jane Fajans

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